Notes and Tones

Notes don’t make sounds. They have no voice. They can’t even hear sounds because they have no ears. The fact is, notes don’t have a clue about what a musical sound is! Their fate is to remain both deaf and silent for all eternity. They sit rigidly on a page and continue to sit there; they don’t vibrate or move. They are only perceived by the eyes. Notes can’t be heard!

Tones, on the other hand, vibrate and resonate. They speak to us! By moving through the air, they are able to move us. But, despite this, they are invisible. Tones can’t be seen. They can only be sensed by our ears, and when played loudly enough, by our bodies.

Musicians are the alchemists who can transform lifeless, leaden notes into vibrating, dancing tones. Notes don’t stir deep emotions. Tones do.

We live in such a hyper-visual culture that we are rapidly losing the vital distinction between the words “tones” and “notes.” People (most notably, us note-reading people) say “notes” when referring to both notes and tones. Listen to others speak and you will “see what I mean.”

I’m not being cranky or pedantic here! If it seems like I’m hairsplitting, try this exercise (which I do all the time): Every time you say the word “note,” see (hear?) if you aren’t actually referring to a tone, an auditory phenomenon. Try consciously making the distinction of tone and note, and notice how it changes and clarifies the way you understand music. You may find, as I have, that carefully maintaining this distinction is necessary for the upkeep of artistry and creativity. Perhaps you’ll see what I mean—or rather, hear what I mean.

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